Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Day John Kennedy Died

Exactly 24 years ago today, I was driving with a couple of friends in my green Volkswagon Beetle from my college, Eastern Illinois University, to join my family in Chicago for Thanksgiving dinner. As usual, as we passed Kankakee, we began to pick up Chicago radio. I tuned in to WXRT, the FM station I'd listened to since I was a Freshman in high school.

As I drove, a Lou Reed song I'd never heard before came on. Unlike most Lou Reed songs, it was soft, slow and sad. It was the song The Day John Kennedy Died

As I listened, I realized that the day was the 20th anniversary of Kennedy's death. As I listened, the song grabbed me:

I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I replaced ignorance, stupidity and hate
I dreamed the perfect union and a perfect law, undenied
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died
I dreamed that I could do the job, that others hadn't done
I dreamed that I was uncorrupt and fair to everyone
I dreamed I wasn't gross or base, or criminal or on the take
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

Oh the day John Kennedy died

I remember where I was that day, I was upstate in a bar
The team from the university was playing football on TV
Then the screen want dead and the announcer said:
"There's been a tragedy;
There are unconfirmed reports the president's been shot
And may be dead or dying."
Talking stopped, someone shouted: " What?!"
I ran out to the street
People were gathered everywhere saying:
"Did you hear what they said on TV?"
And then a guy in a Porsche with his radio on
Hit his horn and told us the news
He said: "The president's dead, he was shot twice in the head
In Dallas, and they don't know by who."

I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I was young and smart and it was not a waste
I dreamed that there was a point to life and to the human race
I dreamed that I could somehow comprehend that someone
Shot him in the face

Oh the day John Kennedy died

Over the years, John Kennedy has been assassinated again-- in character. His flaws-- womanizing, hidden illnesses and such, have been rehashed again and again over the years. One of the things that has been forgotten was that Kennedy helped the United States emerge from the oppressive fifties-- the Cold War, McCarthyism, oppression of minorities, women, gay men and women, leftists-- basically 80% of the country. Yes, he was pretty tepid in his support of civil rights-- his brother Robert, as Attorney General, was much more adamant in his support. Whether Kennedy would have gotten us out of Vietnam had he lived can be debated forever. But one thing that is for sure: he handled the Cuban Missle Crisis better than nearly any President who ever served would have.

A few years ago, most of the living participants in the Cuban Missle Crisis, both Soviet and American, got together for a conference. It was fascinating that these old men were able to talk to their opponents whom they'd been trying to read and sometimes bluff. The truth that emerged was that the United States and the Soviet Union came dangerously close to an all-out war over the missles. Both Kennedy and Soviet leader Krushchev had hawks around them, urging them to go to war.

Kennedy had learned his lesson from the another American adventure in Cuba-- the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy had inherited the plan from the Eisenhower administration. The plan was to support 5,000 Cuban exiles in their attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow the Castro regime. From the start, the plan was fraught with assumptions and bad intelligence. Indeed, the idea that you could secretly train 5,000 guys in the Everglades and keep it a secret was absurd. The Cuban army was waiting for the invading force on the beach, and the United States was left with egg on its face.

When the crisis in Cuba started, Kennedy grabbed hold of the reins. The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff was trying to push him into invading Cuba, and act that would certainly have brought the United States to war with the Soviet Union.

This time, Kennedy was more confident. He questioned every assumption, considered every move. He asked his brother Bobby to sit in on the meetings and discuss them afterward. He clearly realized what the goal was: to get what the United States needed to achieve its security needs-- the removal of the missles-- while allowing Krushchev to save face.

Kennedy's performance was brilliant. For instance, he declared a "quarantine" of Cuba rather than a blockade; a blockade is considered an act of war. He used quiet channels of diplomacy to pursue a solution. And in the end, he offered a carrot along with the stick: the United States agreed to remove nuclear missiles it had in Turkey. Ironically, the Soviets were living with U.S. missiles a short distance from their territory.

In the end, Kennedy and Krushchev resisted the short-sighted men around them and found a way out of what turned out to be the closest the two powers ever came to a full-out nuclear war. Krushchev paid dearly for his role in it; the hawks around him thought that the Soviet Union was humiliated, and two years later removed him from power. I guess I should consider him lucky, that unlike other people who lost in power struggles in the Soviet Union, he was allowed to live. Kennedy was not so lucky. I'm not sure where I stand on the whole Kennedy conspiracy theory-- even today, in the New York Times there is new evidence about it. But whether it was Oswald, a supporter of Cuba, acting alone, or a cabal of right-wingers who were in a froth over what they considered Kennedy's "betrayal" of Cuba, in the end, I believe that the missile crisis had a role in Kennedy's death.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day, one of the many things I'm thankful is that the two men involved, Kennedy and Krushchev, both of them strong-willed and patriotic, were intelligent, resourceful-- and humane enough-- to bring their nations back from the brink. I hope that history brings us more men and women like them in the future.


Doc said...

I hope history finds these people and brings them to the forefront NOW!

Wonderful post, as always.


GETkristiLOVE said...

I was born during the Cuban Missile Crisis and my mom used to tell me how afraid she was to be having another kid if the U.S. was going to be at war. She loved Kennedy even more after the crisis was diverted.

Splotchy said...

I dunno, man. Noam Chomsky isn't to everyone's liking, but he had a good book about the Kennedy administration called Rethinking Camelot, which you might want to check out.

I don't know that JFK's character has been necessarily assassinated. Maybe it's more of a reaction to all the romantic slobbering that has gone on about him in the mainstream media -- maybe what you're critiquing is more of a de-deification of the man.

I'm still looking at my watch, waiting for Ronald Reagan to get his time in the glare of the harsh spotlight of unbiased reporting -- though perhaps *his* media adulation isn't as widespread as Kennedy's.

Ironically, the Soviets were living with U.S. missiles a short distance from their territory.

I don't think there was anything ironic about this. I think it shows that the US was perfectly willing to do what it decried the Soviets were doing in Cuba.

I don't have any good things to say about the Cuban Missile Crisis, how it was resolved, or any of the people involved. I think how dangerously close we came to permanently damaging ourselves and the planet we live on. It's just stupid, and makes me think we're just a dumb cluster of animals that has figured out how to kill each other on a large scale.

Splotchy said...

Oh, to clarify, my last sentence referring to "we" and "us", etc. being stupid animals, was inclusive of both the US and the Soviets.

Erik Donald France said...

Amen, brother.

Distributorcap said...

no man is perfect -- Kennedy had plenty of flaws --- but he shone when he needed to -- and brought something to this country that has been painfully missing --- unity.

i truly believe Kennedy did care about this country and it's people --- and our current leader --- well you know where that stands.

we arent interested in leadership skills that kennedy and kruschev had -- we are interested in the britney spears aspects of their lives (look at the press attention about sarkozy's divorce -- who cares?) ----

i shudder to think what george bush would have done in Oct 1962.

Hot Lemon said...

wow, that wuz goood! But I just have to ask: what happened the nite they drove ol' Dixie down??

SkylersDad said...

Interesting stuff about Kennedy that you can find. He really seemed to have the countries best interest at heart, but none of us will ever know what went on inside the closed rooms of those times. He did a great job with that crisis, at a time when we could have gone over the brink. There were several people position in high places that really thought a nuclear war could be "won".

Dave said...

Have you seen the movie "Fog of War" Robert Macnamera claims to have learned in the "years later meeting with the Russians and Cubans" that the missles were already in place and, upon first American strike, were to be deployed.
Scary stuff man.

dmarks said...

Good mention of Noam. As per the theme of my blog this month, I plan to get a post about him in before the month is over. I hope to look past his totalitarian/fascistic bent and find some good things to say about him.

vikkitikkitavi said...

I love this post! Also, I have to confess that the tv movie "The Missiles of October" is a real guilty pleasure. William Devane as JFK, Martin Sheen as RFK, and that guy who played Benjamin Franklin in 1776 as Kruschev? Come on! Awesome.

Grant Miller said...

That whole missle crisis period fascinates me. Possibly one of the strangest periods in 20th Century America.

Tess said...

You write very well.